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First Descender Bill Bickham Returns to the Upper Yough after 55 Years

Posted: 09/07/2014
by Charlie Walbridge

Bill Bickham, a whitewater canoe champion who made the first descent of the Youghiogheny River in May of 1959, returned to Friendsville this past Saturday for a valedictory trip with Precision Rafting Expeditions. Once considered an extreme expedition, the "Upper Yough" between Sang Run and Friendsville now plays host to hundreds of skilled kayakers every summer weekend and supports an vibrant commercial rafting tripnbusiness. Fred Fox, a Friendsville native who recently opened Ken's Irish Pub, organized a party to celebrate the river and the upcoming Whitewater World Championships in Garrett County this September. He invited Bickham to be his honored guest and asked Roger Zbel, owner of Precision Rafting, to provide a raft trip.
Bickham, now 77, was one of the strongest paddlers of his era. A seven-time national slalom champion in both single and double canoe, he and his friends ran the Upper Yough in aluminum canoes at very low water levels.  On the first run, accompanied by David Kurtz and Tom Smyth, he pinned his canoe in a steep drop and had to walk out. He returned to complete the trip several times and described the river, one of the toughest he ever attempted, as "exhausting". Bickham enjoyed rafting the river at the higher release flows and yearned to try it in a canoe once again. He was impressed by the skill levels of today's paddlers and excited that so many people were enjoying what he and his friends discovered 55 years ago. His guide, Steve Kaufman, has been running the river professionally for decades. He praised Bickham for his "strong paddle stroke, quick reactions, and knack for staying in the raft."
At the party afterwards Bickham met several people who played an important role in making the Upper Yough accessible to the paddling public. These included Imre Szilagyi of Kingwood, WV, a pioneering whitewater outfitter purchased the land where the Sang Run River Access sits and worked hard to place it in public ownership. Also present was Steve Taylor of Potomac, Maryland, a NASA hydrologist who helped the State of Maryland develop a "water release budget" for Deep Creek Lake. Roger Zbel, who works closely with the power company to manage these releases, and Charlie Walbridge, long time American Whitewater board member, were also present.
Thanks to the Youghiogheny, Savage River, and the ASCI Whitewater Park Garrett County is developing a reputation as one of the best areas to paddle whitewater in the East. We look forward to many more years of active fun here!
Photo of Steve Taylor, Charlie Walbridge, Imre Silagyi, and Bill Bickham and the abstract photo of Bickham by Jeff Macklin
Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV